The Red Queen: A Chat with Helena Bonham Carter

The great British actress gets her big head on again for Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Helena Bonham Carter returns to Underland in Alice Through the Looking Glass, director James Bobin’s sequel to Tim Burton’s surprise 2010 blockbuster Alice in Wonderland. One of the pleasures of that film was Carter’s wonderfully nasty performance as the Red Queen (a kind of amalgam of the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s books), made more delightful by the visually enhanced size of her head and Carter’s always sharp way with words.

In Alice Through the Looking Glass, which also brings back Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway and Johnny Depp, in addition to new cast member Sacha Baron Cohen, we get to know the Red Queen a bit more. And we’re not just catching up with her several years after the events of the first film, but taking a look into her past to see how she came to be the paragon of narcissism and cruelty that she is. Carter – who we’ve loved for years in movies like Fight Club, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Wings of the Dove, Sweeney Todd, Planet of the Apes, The King’s Speech and as Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies – energizes every scene she’s in. We spoke with her about the Red Queen, working with James Bobin (The Muppets), her late friend Alan Rickman and more.

Den of Geek: What did you like about playing The Red Queen? And what made it interesting and different to come back?

Helena Bonham Carter: I loved playing her originally because of her look, too. I always like camouflaging myself, basically. She’s just such a strong character. It’s always liberating to play someone who has basically stopped growing up. She was just brilliantly written. It was a gift.

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And then when the sequel came around, I was just praying it was well-written. And it was. And in a sort of typically Red Queen egocentric way, I thought, “Oh, there’s a lot about me!” [laughs] And it all made sense. And there was lots of things to develop. So it was fun, because she wasn’t necessarily a big part in the first one. So it was nice to have something where you develop something and you work on something quite a lot. And I seriously do…I’m anal about my craft.

So I had quite a good base. And I thought, “There’s a lot more that we can do and use.” The second script gave us all sorts of things to think about, like what she would have been like five years later stuck in the middle of nowhere. I loved the idea of herself thinking she’s still queen even though she isn’t. So it’s a bit Miss Havisham, a bit of Sunset Boulevard and having to rule something. That’s the only way she operates to make herself feel okay, so she had to rule the vegetables. I liked that idea.

And then also the whole going back in time scene where her whole…what informed the size of her head, the event in her life, and the whole relationship with her sister. It made sense to me.

I never read the books, so I didn’t really know until much later that in the first movie she’s kind of a combination of The Red Queen and The Queen of Hearts. Do you ever go back and look at the books yourself?

I did a bit, I think on the first one, and then realized, well, we didn’t have much plot. Well, I definitely did. No, I did. And I read all about The Red Queen, and also what Dodgson (Charles Dodgson, real name of Lewis Carroll) had written about The Red Queen. There was something, now I can’t remember, about her rage, and that, which I love, she had only one solution to anything, which was “off with their heads.” And, of course, that was key, because I thought, “Well, she’s got too big a head.” So everybody’s head that was normal size was always a reminder that hers was abnormal. So that’s why she had to cut everybody else’s head off.

Did you interact much with the little girl who plays the younger version of the character?

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We did a little bit because we had to make sure that we were sort of — I think she watched me. We didn’t coincide in the schedules. A tiny bit. The tiny bit where I see her, where we revisit that moment.

How was it working with Sacha on this one?

Sacha is forever inventive and unpredictable. What was great was to see how he had this long relationship with James Bobin. If you are a comedian, you have to trust your director, which he did, which was great, because you are so in the hands of the editing. You know, if the laugh is going to happen. And the perfectionism is very exacting. So it was fascinating to see them work.

What did James bring to the table?

He’s very, very clever, James. Got a lot of grace, I would say, because he had to inherit all these characters that he had not chosen. But he was happy to work with us. He’s a real gentleman. He wears stress incredibly well. And he examines every single moment.

He really helped us when we were, you know…a lot of directors might be lazy. But the fact is when you get to the set, he helps us, you know, try and enter some world and not feel so exposed, because you can feel very exposed when you are in a massive blue room and you can see everybody. There’s general lighting. There’s no set to lose yourself in. You’ve got to really imagine everything. And he’d be very, very brilliant at trying to tell us what was happening, and always asked for an interesting choice which you haven’t thought of, and made sure whenever we walked off that we’d exhausted every possibility.

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It’s a difficult because they’re all short bits. You’re in makeup and you are getting ready, it’s in total disproportion to the actual time that you tend to act, or try and act. And it’s very difficult to get some momentum or any heightened degree of concentration or flow, I think. It was in a very sort of sterile blue room. He was very helpful. He’s very humane. I really loved him, trusted him.

You’ve done so many films with visual effects. Do you ever get used to walking into these green rooms or blue rooms and having to really rely completely on your imagination?

It’s still freaky. You have to blank everybody out, which you do anyway, but it’s even more so…I think I sort of suddenly go, “Oh, it’s the lighting that’s sort of so exposing.” I was actually talking about all the light and saying it was difficult to maintain concentration. You just have to work harder. And then you’ll feel less of a twat. If you sort of suspend your own disbelief and sort of complete the world, then you feel less vulnerable.

This film is dedicated to Alan Rickman. You shared so many films with him, including all the Harry Potter films. This is his last one. Anything that you want to just say about him in general?

Well, the poetic thing about it is he’s voicing a blue butterfly. And anything that I can tell Rima, his wife, to comfort her, is there’s that quote: “Just when the caterpillar thought it was all over, it became a butterfly.” And often, butterflies…you know, death can be seen as the end. It can also…I don’t know if it’s any comfort, but you can also see that it’s a point of transition.

So, I think maybe there’s something poetic in him being a blue butterfly in his last screen presence. But he was such a gentleman and a man of huge kindness, and twinkle, and contradiction, because sometimes he’d be aloof, and then the next minute he’d be immediate and crinkle out in a massive, mischievous smile. And he had an absolutely and totally unforgettable…there will never be another voice like his.

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For sure. Is there a genre of film that you have not done yet that you would like to do?

I’d like to know a musical. I guess I sort of did that. A silent movie then.

Which one of your roles do you get asked the most about by fans?

I think it’s Harry Potter, Bellatrix, which is ironic, because it’s the tiniest and sort of a cartoon. Not really a cartoon, but it’s a tiny part I really tried to develop. But I did love doing it. I was privileged just to be part of it. And it was good to have that when my kids were so young, because it didn’t feel I could take on much, but I could take on a tiny part that I made really big (laughs) in performance.

What’s next after this?

It’s a film called 55 Steps, directed by Bille August. I play someone who is a paranoid schizophrenic with learning difficulties. So that should be a laugh! [laughs]

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Alice Through the Looking Glass opens in theaters Friday (May 27).

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